The Rear-View Mirror: Adam’s Rib (1949)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

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Adam’s Rib is a George Cukor comedy or, if you take into account the amount of doors slammed, a farce. It is about married couple Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) an assistant district attorney, and Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn) a lawyer. It relates how they cope and bicker in a marriage where Amanda is a “modern woman”, which is to say a kind of (shorthand) feminist.

In the movie’s opening scenes we witness a woman (Judy Holliday) follow a man (Tom Ewell) to an apartment. We already know she has a gun, and we see her read the instructions before charging in. There she finds the man with another woman. She firmly shuts her eyes, and fires at random into the room, wounding the man. These are the Attingers.

Now meet the Bonners. Amanda and Adam wake up on a typical morning to peruse the morning papers. The Attinger case grabs Amanda’s attention. She feels that if the roles had been reversed, if a man caught his cheating wife in a compromising position and shot at them, he would be let off. It is only because she is a woman, that society is predisposed to convict her, by media if necessary. The Attingers’ criminal case lands on Adam’s desk for the prosecution. When Amanda hears this, she does not relent until she has secured the same case, for herself as defence counsel. She has a Cause and wants to make a point. Inevitably, hijinks ensue.

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From my short introduction, it should already be clear that modern audiences could find plenty to criticise in this comedy. Domestic violence for comedic effect, feminism as a matter of “sameness”. Moreover, a complete blindness to the class issues it inadvertently raises: in essence, feminism as an upper-class diversion. But that would be too simplistic and too dour a position to take.

The film comes alive in the easy chemistry between its two leads, not in its political points. They are, quite simply, wonderful together. Their characters refuse to become one-dimensional, even if the plot takes ever-more farcical turns (some of which are genuinely hilarious, a few of which have not aged well). The side characters each make the most of their time on screen. Ewell, as the aggrieved party, is hilariously crass. In retrospect, it is tempting to contrast this performance with his turn opposite Marilyn Monroe as the smitten (but unfortunately already married) oaf in The Seven Year Itch (1955). Holliday does her patented Dumb Blonde, in the way only she can. David Wayne plays the stereotypical Impossible Friend trope fearlessly and with such unscrupulous glee, you want to slap him through the screen, even as you stifle your laughter.

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As aficionados of Tracy-Hepburn lore will undoubtedly know, Tracy and Hepburn’s real life romance was in a similar mold: reportedly Tracy was the only one who could tell Hepburn to shut up. Beginning with Woman of the Year (1942), Hepburn and Tracy would make films where Tracy would play the quintessential American male, while Hepburn would play the soft-center, hard-shell, liberated woman who, after being self-sufficient for a while, ultimately complies with the strictures of being a woman. This, allegedly, in order not to alienate female audiences, who could hardly expect to be granted the freedoms Hepburn’s characters enjoy. Adam’s Rib is arguably the best of these comedies. Whether it is the positive side of their real-life relationship which glitters so brightly on screen, or whether conversely their scintillating on-screen relationship had seeped into their very complicated private lives, is anyone’s guess. But their films together are a joy to watch.

So, set your woke-ness aside, just for a little while, and enjoy this charming comedy for all it has to offer. Though we can, rightly, be critical of its message: we can still love it for its abundant sparkle.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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